There’s a reason books about Hitler consistently outsell books about Churchill. As long as it’s kept at arm’s length, abstracted into words or images, and not in our faces or in our houses, evil is way more compelling than good.
These 10 people are among the worst humans in history — merciless despots, ruthless killers, stock brokers — but their horrific deeds provide the raw material for fascinating, unforgettable films that examine what makes evil tick. Maybe watching one of these movies could help you recognise and avoid real-life evil. Probably not, but they’re great movies anyway.
Adolph Hitler — Downfall (2005)
You have to start a list like this with the big one, the man who modernised genocide, the one-and-only, the most infamous, Adolph Hitler.
There are a lot of powerful movies about Nazis, but Downfall is my all-time favourite. Based on witness testimony and verifiable fact, it invites viewers into the führerbunker, the underground air-raid shelter where Hitler, his girlfriend, and his closest allies and their families huddled like rats in the final days of the war. This just-the-truth style film refuses to moralize or exaggerate, because seeing Hitler and his enablers as they actually were is worse than anything you could dream up.
John Wayne Gacy — Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes (2022)
Serial killer John Wayne Gacy is terrifying. He led an outwardly normal, upstanding life — he was married, managed a KFC, worked as a shoe salesman, and was active in the JayCees — all while torturing and murdering 33 innocent boys in his suburban Chicago home. He also dressed up like a clown for kids at local parties. Shudder.
This documentary series reveals the when, what, where, and how of everything that went down in the Gacy case, but it doesn’t really get close to the why. Even listening to Gacy’s tell his story in his own words doesn’t make his actions understandable. Probably because there is no answer.
Idi Amin Dada — The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Ugandan warlord Idi Amin Dada was one of the most brutal modern dictators, but Forest Whitaker’s career-defining portrayal makes it clear that Amin’s hold over the people of Uganda wasn’t based solely on fear. Like the most dangerous despots, he’s hypnotically charismatic, hiding his poison heart with a wide smile and a back-slapping laugh until it’s too late to escape. The Last King of Scotland is a chilling film about the insidious allure of autocrats, particularly to idealistic people who assume strangers have good intentions.
Elizabeth Bathory — Chastity Bites (2013)
Elizabeth Bathory was a Hungarian noblewoman who was said to have tortured and murdered as many as 650 people. If you believe her accusers, her favourite victims were young girls, because she thought bathing in the blood of virgins would keep her eternally young. Chastity Bites is a horror/comedy that imagines Bathory’s beauty regimen worked, and she’s still living, preying on modern high schools by organising religious chastity pledge programs to make sure her victims are virgins. This underrated movie is low-budget and rough-around-the-edges, but it’s funny, smart, and skewers the horror genre’s sex = death obsession, right wing hypocrisy, vapid teenage culture, materialism, beauty obsession, and just about everything else that was happening in 2013 America.
Jordan Belfort — The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
OK, Jordan Belfort probably isn’t one of the worst people in history — he’s more of a two-bit conman who got lucky — but The Wolf of Wall Street is such a hugely entertaining, candy-coloured movie, it elevates his penny-stock swindle into something epic. That’s the power of cinema, I guess. He’s here representing the ills that come from unchecked greed and amorality (in other words, capitalism) — the idea that countless little actions from people who aren’t that bad can still add up to something monstrous.
Ed Gein and Elmer Wayne Henley — Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The grisly crimes of Ed Gein, the Plainfield Ghoul, inspired both Psycho’s Normal Bates and Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface (and, by extension, every slasher movie villain since). Director Tobe Hooper blended Gein’s out-of-his-mind chaos with Houston serial killer Elmer Wayne Henley’s more organised (but no less brutal) style to create the twisted Sawyer family at the centre of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’ve seen a lot of horror movies, and this is the scariest, most relentless one ever made.
Various — The Act of Killing (2013)
If your idea of a fun evening is staring into the deepest depths of the abyss of human evil, I have a movie recommendation for you! The Act of Killing is a documentary that features some of the butchers who slaughtered over a million people in Indonesia in the mid 1960s. Because the right wing death squads became the country’s government, these mass murderers were not brought to justice; they were rewarded. Fifty years later, the heads of death squads are elder statesmen of evil — celebrities of a sort, but celebrities everyone is clearly terrified of.
The Act of Killing asks these men to recreate their crimes as film sequences. They’re too vain and too stupid to understand that they’re really being asked to explain themselves, so they cast themselves as action heroes, but can’t always manage to maintain the facade as the self-reflection needed to make art forces them to reckon with what they’ve done.
Tomas de Torquemada — Witchfinder General (1968)
In Witchfinder General, horror icon Vincent Price delivers an uncharacteristically restrained and chilling performance inspired by the life and crimes of Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition.
Like their real-life counterparts, the “religious” men travelling from town to town torturing people and burning heretics at the stakes in Witchfinder General aren’t zealots; they’re cold-hearted operators. No one, not the inquisitors, the victims, nor the townspeople eager to see a public execution, seriously believes in witches, heresy, or even God. They believe in money and power, and are totally fine with murdering inconvenient people for a scrap of either, a fact that’s a million times scarier than any witch.
Vlad the Impaler — Nosferatu (1922)
Known for his boundless cruelty, Vlad The Impaler (aka Vlad Dracula) ruled as prince of Wallachia between 1448 to 1462. Over those 14 years, he killed about 20% of the population there, boiling people alive, feeding babies to their parents, and impaling his victims on sharpened pikes from buttocks to mouth — hence the “Impaler” honorific.
Vlad inspired the title character of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, which in turn inspired every filmic vampire. But Nosferatu’s blood-sucker isn’t a cultured, seductive aristocrat like Bela Lugosi in Universal’s Dracula. He’s a straight-up monster, like the real Vlad the Impaler — all claws and teeth, no charm. Even though Nosferatu is a century old, it’s as immortal as an undead ghoul. It’s still scary, and director F.W. Murnau’s chiaroscuro, German-expressionist production design is a more striking and stylish setting for Dracula than any other vampire movie.
Al Capone — The Untouchables (1987)
Movies usually glamorize organised crime — it’s easy to get audiences to root for a cool antihero, especially if he’s wearing a nice suit — but in reality, mobbed-up dudes like Al Capone are the worst kind criminals. The “organised” part of organised crime doesn’t just break laws, it shakes the foundation of law itself, and law is the only thing keeping our society semi-civilized.
The Untouchables doesn’t take the easy route of glamorizing Capone’s misdeeds. Instead, it walks the much more difficult path of asking us to root for lantern-jawed G-man Elliott Ness and his law-and-order crew, even though they’re a bunch of squares, and the best charge they can manage to bring is tax evasion.
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